On February 6, 2015, the Vera Institute of Justice completed its series of educational briefings on Capitol Hill with a forum titled Narrowing the Net, Plugging the Pipeline, and Expanding Consideration of Special Populations.

Watch a video of the event.

The first distinguished speaker was Roy Austin, the deputy assistant to the President for the Office of Urban Affairs, Justice and Opportunity at the White House Domestic Policy Council, who commenced his presentation by thanking Vera for hosting such an important conversation about a range of issues in the juvenile justice system. He proceeded to explain that the criminal justice system impacts us all; therefore, we all need to do better. A major theme throughout his presentation was the idea of proactively helping all ends of the issue, not just the front end or just the back end. He discussed the front-end issues of foster youth, human trafficking victims, and girls of color. As for the small population of youth who we must incarcerate, Mr. Austin said we need to make sure they are getting the skills and programs they need in confinement. On the back end and after confinements, we need to get rid of the 40,000 “silly” collateral consequences that take away youths’ opportunity for success once they have a criminal background. He also highlighted the importance of access to education, employment, and housing upon youth reentry. He reiterated the need for resources for youth and community, including those to help parents of incarcerated youth, improve law enforcement’s treatment of young people, and build knowledge of incarcerated youth and safe supervision habits. Mr. Austin concluded his presentation by encouraging the My Brother’s Keeper’s Community Challenge to look at all ends to make sure youth can and will succeed.

Laurie Garduque, the director of justice reform at the MacArthur Foundation, joined the discussion and explained how the MacArthur Foundation came to fruition and the implications for legal reform that have grown from the Foundation’s efforts. Dr. Garduque applauded the field’s resilience and growth since the Foundation began. She discussed the fact that more than 400 localities and 40 states are working on specific issues of juvenile justice reform. Although we have grown in leadership, ideas, and knowledge of the population of juvenile justice-involved youth, we still cannot fully answer the question, “How do we help them?” Dr. Garduque explained the importance of recognizing policy and research in order to make changes and employ an infrastructure that will allow the system to stand on its own upon the eventual culmination of the Foundation’s focus on juvenile justice. Dr. Garduque concluded her remarks with a profound observation that “justice on geography is not justice” and that she is “confident that continued progress is possible and that it is solely about young, vulnerable individuals who make mistakes and should not be punished for the rest of their lives.”

Dr. Howard Spivak, deputy director and chief of staff at the National Institute of Justice, continued the conversation. He explained that views of brain development have shifted between the time when he was in medical school to the present knowledge of adolescent brain impact and development. He highlighted that hormonal change during adolescence and early experience with trauma greatly affects how the brain grows. He explained that the adverse effect of traumatic events and incarceration on adolescent brains is present and extensive. The trauma and effects are not irrevocable damage, but are vulnerabilities that need to be addressed and helped. He discussed recent research findings demonstrating that children growing up in violence-ridden neighborhoods can suffer from PTSD that mirrors the intense severity of PTSD in active soldiers. Dr. Spivak concluded his presentation by emphasizing the need for policymakers to think about the whole spectrum in order to understand how to employ holistic, empirical-based approaches at the individual and community levels.

Dr. Laurence Steinberg, one of the world’s leading experts on adolescence and a distinguished university professor at Temple University, was the keynote speaker for the forum. He opened his conversation by highlighting the need to realign inconsistencies between scientific knowledge and public perception of adolescence. He argued that we should not view adolescence as a stage we simply need to “survive,” because science has proven that adolescence is starting on average two years earlier and lasting longer than we originally expected. This does and will continue to cause issues in dealing with adolescents in their early twenties who are reentering the community after years of incarceration. Stakeholders must learn how and why kids are different. Dr. Steinberg discussed the exciting idea that adolescence is a second period of brain plasticity and the importance of taking advantage of this phase. During this second time of brain plasticity, we need to be extremely thoughtful about how we treat this population because it is the last time of changing plasticity; therefore, the last opportunity for real change in the brain. Dr. Steinberg then discussed his recent study that tracked a sample of juvenile offenders for seven years. Although there was no predictive statistic of which kids would continue to commit crime and which kids would desist from crime, one of the robust predictors of variability between these two options was low self-control. He explained that this predictor could be strengthened with empirical-based therapeutic approaches and education. The NIJ is currently studying first-time juvenile offenders versus repeat juvenile offenders in order to test if the length of stay in a juvenile facility adversely affects reentry success. They found that all juveniles are adversely affected by incarceration with no variability in regards to length of confinement. Dr. Steinberg recommends keeping most youth out of juvenile facilities while still finding a way to balance community protection; and for youth who must go in, it is critical to get them out quickly. Dr. Steinberg completed his discussion with this quote: “Adolescence is another opportunity of brain elasticity…brain development does not just happen over the first three years, it is not inoculation, especially in adolescence, to help get their lives back in order.”

The next speaker was Johan Uvin, acting assistant secretary for the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education at the U.S. Department of Education. He began his conversation by explaining the various ways in which youth cases lead to youth contact. He spoke about racial and gender disparities in the juvenile justice system and argued that these disparities are disturbing and warrant more attention. He discussed the joint publication of the Department of Education and Department of Justice regarding guiding principles that can help local and district schools mediate and guide discipline without discrimination. He went on to discuss the Department of Education’s demo initiative involving intellectually disabled youth and the positive outcomes this initiative has set up. Dr. Uvin also spoke about the adult justice system and its issues with adult reentry education, and offered guidance for local and federal jails to implement these educational programs. He applauded the Texas justice system for participating in a relationship with Navarro Community College that allows inmates to enroll in college classes through online access. From this initiative, inmates were able to complete 602 college classes. He encouraged stakeholders and policymakers to help juvenile justice-involved youth rebuild their lives, reclaim their homes, and rejoin society with individual approaches to pursue important progressive and educational initiatives for youth and their families, friends, and communities.

The final speaker was Mark Soler, who is the executive director for the Center for Children’s Law and Policy. Mr. Soler focused on racial issues and disparities in the juvenile justice system. He discussed his role as training director for a five-day training on race at Georgetown University. Many findings have come out of his research, including the disheartening reality that youth of color make up one-third of all youth but account for two-thirds of the youth in the juvenile justice system. He also spoke about the disjunction between the progressive nature of state interventions and the failing attempts of the federal government's actions to combat racial disparities in the juvenile justice system. He went on to applaud the MacArthur Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation for reducing racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system. The Casey Foundation has set up 300 sites in 39 states with measurable performance in decreasing racial disparities. Recently, through a series of reforms, state facilities were able to decrease their population of inmates by two-thirds, but a database report shows no change in the disproportionality of race. He concluded his conversation by saying that if we are going to talk about reform, let’s talk about real, tangible reform. This includes using objective screening instruments for youth risk assessments, providing effective alternatives and interventions to incarceration, and regulating performance measures by strict monitoring.